The Circumscribed and Tragic Hero: Lena’s role in A Raisin in the Sun
In his book Twelve Million Black Voices Richard Wright asserts that:In the Black Belts of the northern cities, our women are the most circumscribed and tragic objects to be found in our lives […] Surrounding our black women are many almost insuperable barriers: they are black, they are women, they are workers; they are triply anchored and restricted in their movements within and without of the black belts (1526). Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun,set in the south side of Chicago afterWorld War II, works as an affirmation of Wright’s statement. The play at first seems to be subjugating its women by pushing them to the background of the narrative, ignoring their contributions to the plot, and presenting Walter as the hero. However, a closer look at the script reveals that Hansberry—a black women herself—intentionally uses this framing to encourage the readers to first view Walter as a protagonist and, later, to question their original assessment and their willingness to push the true protagonist, Lena, to the side.
Although there are several subtle indications from the beginning of the novel that the main character is Lena, rather than Walter, the first instance of Lena significantly driving the plot occurs around the middle of Act II when she decides to purchase a house with her insurance money. This decision completely shifts the trajectory of the plot, changes the nature of every relationship in the house, and is arguably the most drastic action taken by any of the characters through the play. However, the narrative doesn’t allow the reader to focus too long on the fact that Lena, a side character, is taking on the role of primary influencer in the story. Instead, her actions are immediately dwarfed by Walter’s insistence on making himself, his issues, and his selfishness predominant in the narrative. Walter does this when, instead of rejoicing with the rest of the family, he turns on his mother in anger and says, “So you butchered up a dream of mine—you—who always talking ‘bout your children’s dreams” (Hansberry 1494). Walter subsequently drags the plot and the attention of the reader onto himself and away from Lena as he throws a tantrum by going out and drinking. Walter’s actions then force Lena, who still has the most power to affect the narrative, into her next plot driving decision.
While Walter’s decision to entrust his and Beneatha’s money to a con-man may seem like it gives him importance as a driving force in the plot, the fault for his irrational decision ultimately rests on Lena’s shoulder’s because it was her decisions that set into motion the events that made losing the money possible in the first place. When Walter throws a fit and gets himself drunk Lena’s response, rather than to ignore him, is to give him the attention he’s asking for, shifting plot and reader attention to Walter. Lena ultimately caves into his cries of victimhood and hands him the money, not only his money but Beneatha’s as well. Walter’s response to this is to look at her in astonishment and ask, “You trust me like that, Mama” (Hansberry 1497). Her response is, “I ain’t never stopped trusting you. Like I ain’t never stopped loving you” (Hansberry 1497). This exchange of money is where the exchange of power and potential for controlling the plot happens. When Lena hands Walter the money she is handing him the power to make decisions that impact the story. It is important to note, however, that whatever power Walter has originated with Lena and her decision to give him any power in the first place. Thus, Walter’s subsequent decisions to hand over the money to an untrustworthy man, while they take up much of the plot and divert the reader’s attention to Walter, should ultimately be attributed to Lena. When Walter’s deal goes sour, he resolves to humiliate himself and his family in order to make a profit from Linder but, ultimately, chooses to maintain his pride. This pivotal decision can also be attributed to Lena. The script frames this decision as the climactic moment of the story wherein Walter finally chooses his family above monetary gain and subsequently “comes into his manhood.” But the decision is not Walter’s, it is Lena’s.
Lena does not sit idly by during this vital moment but instead chooses to put pressure on Walter to choose his pride and his family above the money. She does this by making Travis, Walter’s son, stay by her side. She then looks into Walter’s eyes, holding Travis and what he represents hostage: “And you make him understand what you’re doing, Walter Lee. You teach him good. Like Willy Harris taught you. You show what our five generations done come to. Go ahead, son” (Hansberry 1518). After having this pressure put on him, Walter caves. Rather than agreeing to the deal, he declares that he is from “a proud people,” echoing Lana’s statements from an earlier scene. However, this would not be enough to prove Lena the primary mover without the acknowledgment of the explicit power that she holds in the situation. Leana is far from a passive bystander subject to Walter’s whims. The property belongs to Lena, not Walter. Any decision on Lena’s part to give Walter influence in the outcome of the plot is just that: a decision. At any moment Lena is able to stop the transaction from happening, to revoke her consent. Instead, she allows Walter to make the decision for her. She transfers her power to him. The plot would have us believe, at first glance, that this is a story of Walter coming into his manhood and that he finally does so by choosing to maintain his pride rather than caving to his lust for money. However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that Walter’s ability to acquire his “manhood” is also mediated through his mother and her decisions. If Lena’s influence over his son is not explicit in the scene where she implores him to choose his family above monetary gain, it is in the following scene when she bestows his manhood upon him. In one of the final scenes, when the family is getting ready to move out of the house, Lena addresses Ruth by saying, “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain” (Hansberry 1520). In this way, Walter’s manhood is not something that he has earned on his own. Instead, it comes to him by way of his mother: by her influence over his actions and her decision to bestow manhood upon him. Any narrative praise or attention that Walter might receive here is given to him through Lena. It is, again, an exchange of power wherein Lena holds the true power and influence over the plot but her decision to transfer that power over to Walter and to put emphasis on Walter frames him in such a way that the reader is duped into believing that he is the main character.
The final scene of A Raisin in the Sun is the most overt instance where Lena is framed as the protagonist of the play. It is the moment in which Hansberry asks the reader to question Lena’s role in the script their own assumptions about Walter as the protagonist. In the final scene, Lena is left alone in the house. Rather than leaving in haste with the rest of the family, she stands for a while in the kitchen debating whether she ought to take her plant with her. She contemplates leaving the plant, steps out without it, and then comes back in and grabs it, unable to leave it behind. In order to understand this scene, one needs also to understand the plant and what it represents in the play. Throughout the play, Lena is shown nurturing the withering plant, trying to preserve it, and lamenting its unhealthy state. Several characters, including Walter, berate Lena for her careful attention to the plant, deeming it a lost cause and her efforts to preserve it a waste of time. Lena, however, never gives up on the plant. Throughout the play, Lena also acts as the binding force in the family, her efforts to preserve familial unity mimicking her efforts to preserve the plant. In this way, the plant is a representation of Lena’s care for her family. Her attention to the plant in spite of its deteriorating state represents her determination to keep her family together.
In the last scene, Lena contemplates leaving the plant behind. This is a moment where she is forced to question her role as matriarch and ask herself whether her family might not need her guidance anymore. This is the cumulation of every pivotal role that Lena has played throughout the play. It is an acknowledgment of her power as one of the main forces in the plot and the catalyst through which every other character, Walter included, was able to grow. After bestowing “manhood” on Walter, Lena is forced to question her role as the leader of the family. She decides, for a split second, that she is no longer needed, only to backpedal on her decision a moment later, concluding that her family still needs her and that she will continue to lead them. An attentive reader will notice the narrative significance of this final scene. Rather than ending with Walter, putting an emphasis on his growth as a character and his ability to lead his family, focus is put onto Lena, making her, for the first time, the most obviously important character, with no consideration of Walter and his mistakes or decisions to distract from Lena’s significance.
By using the plant to represent the family and Lena’s relationship to the family, Hansberry asks the reader to question the role that Lena has played throughout the script, to put emphasis on the fact that every event that took place was a result of Lena’s decisions and her determination to keep her family together. Subsequently, Hansberry also puts emphasis on the reader’s assumptions about Lena and her role in the play, highlighting the tendency to see Walter as the protagonist simply because he is male, the tendency to ignore Lena, who truly drove all of the major shifts in the narrative. It brings to light an inclination, one that Hansberry was doubtless herself aware of, to push black women to the background of a narrative, whether that narrative is a play script or a social script. Thus, by forcing Lena, the main character, to the background of her own narrative, Hansberry highlights how the reader also forced her there and failed to see Lena’s power in driving the narrative. In this way, Hansberry both affirms and seeks to subvert Wrights statement: “In the Black Belts of the northern cities, our women are the most circumscribed and tragic objects to be found in our lives” (Wright 1526). In essence, she pushes Lena to the background in order to bring her into the spotlight, makes Lena a circumscribed and tragic object in order to frame her as a hero.
Hansberry, Lorraine. “A Raisin in the Sun.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, Norton and Company Inc. 2017, 1457-1520.Wright, Richard. “Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, Norton and Company Inc. 2017, 1523-1527.
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